The it was. With a budget of $50

The Grand Duchess Anastasia is revered as one of the
grandest Russian myths of all time. Did she escape the assassination of her
family or not? Aldus Huxley once said that “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in
between are the doors of perception”. This is
definitely the case for Anastasia who through media was perceived as a beacon
of hope for the citizens of Russian in the early 20th century. I
will be analysing the perception of Anastasia through the naive impressionistic
mind of a child in the Animation titled ‘Anastasia’ and how it perceived true
events to a younger audience.

Anastasia, the animated legend was
released in 1997 by 20th century fox productions. With massive star
power from people like Meg Ryan, Angela Lansbury, John Cusack and Christopher
Lloyd, the animation was headlined for success…And it was. With a budget of
$50 million Anastasia raked in nearly $140 million at the box office alone not
including DVD purchase.

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The story tells of the end of the Romanov
line at the hands of sorcerer Rasputin. All die with the exception of Anastasia
who with the help of her grandmother and kitchen boy Dimitri escaped the violent
murder of her family. However, Anastasia lost her memory and was raised in an
orphanage under the name Anya. Fast forward 9 years and the story tells of her
journey to discovering her lineage whilst simultaneously falling for the same
boy who saved her life in the first place. There are many negative things to be
said of this idealistic interpretation of events, as well as the subtle ways in
which fragments of the truth were told in the same idyllic fantasy, but first
you have to know a bit about the real account of events as we know them.

The Romanov family was one of the
longest running dynasties of Russia spanning over three centuries. Tsar
Nicholas II; Anastasia’s father was a product of generations of Russian
tradition and privilege. His goal as Tsar was to reintroduce autocracy and
restore Russia to its former Glory in way of his fatalist beliefs along as his
devout dedication to God. One thing he didn’t take into account was his people.
With the growing world of industry, the population of St Petersburg had grown exponentially
and the needs of its people were direr than ever. After generations of
oppression and being denied basic commodities of life like food, equal pay and
respect, the citizens of Russia turned on the Romanovs until Tsar Nicholas II
was forced to abdicate the throne. He and his family were forced to live under
armed guard in Yekaterinburg where they were later unceremoniously assassinated
in the cellar by soldiers in July 1918.

The unequivocal message that Anastasia
the animated film tells children is that the Romanovs were good and innocent
people that were destroyed by Rasputin; the maniacal villain. The dark era of
the Romanovs is glossed over and Romanticised as a happier time. The Primary
culprit of this ‘lie’ being the overall aesthetic told through the visual
colour pallet. Most of the film is viewed in warm saturation and hues of browns
and oranges. In Color: the film reader
(2006) author Brian Price makes the observation that colour is as integral
to the message of a film as any other element of Mise en scéne

                “Color is thus no incidental characteristic of
film stock; it is an

Element, carefully considered by set
designers, cinematographers, and directors, all of

Whom must remain sensitive to the way in which
color can create meaning, mood,

Sensation, or perceptual cues” (price 2006)

What then is the
colour pallet of Anastasia telling its young audience? In colour psychology
Brown is associated with sincerity and honesty. It is a warm colour with an air
of elegance. This explains why any form of association with the Romanovs is seen
through the warm brown filter. There’s a royal grandeur established in the warm
browns and hints of gold, playing on our consistent cultural idealism and
fascination with royalty and supposed nobility. The opening ball scene
establishes a positive connection to the Romanovs and the royal world that came
before the revolution. Later scenes throughout the film contrast this heavily.
The cold blues and greys of Russia are a suggestion of the bleak life of
communist Russia and Anastasia is a constant reminder of the warm colours in
the beginning. She is a visual cue to that world that came before. The warm
colours follow her throughout the story.

Animated films aimed at children
all suffer from the same problem. What they can say is limited and censored for
the viewing of a younger audience and working within these confinements leads
to a romanticization of true events. This couldn’t be truer than in Anastasia.
Truths are left out, history is rewritten and characters are completely altered
to make a genre appropriate romantic film for children. How in particular is
the story romanticized?

Animation style.

 The style of animation in Anastasia is a
realistic style called Rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is an animation technique in
which animators trace over the movements of motion picture footage frame by
frame. This is a technique chosen to ground the characters in reality. The
character’s movements are fluid and organic as opposed to the more popular
cartoonish style of animation. This film although a romantic retelling is still
at its core a film about real people and events. To draw them in this realistic
fashion adds more Physical weight to each character’s actions. The fictional grown
up Anastasia feels as real as her younger counterpart that we know existed.

 

 

 

 

 

Age.

At the time of her death Anastasia
was 17 years old but in the events of the film in the overturn of the Romanov
line Anastasia is portrayed as a 10-year-old child. By exaggerating the youth
of Anastasia, we as an audience are more tethered to her fate. In the book ‘The
Romanov sisters’ author Helen Rapparot leading historian suggests that the
enduring fascination with Anastasia and the Romanov children stems from them
being “stuck in a time warp of innocence, beauty, virginal, untainted and
unmarried” and she’s right. The Romanov sisters were the most photographed
monarchs in history. And with that, they were portrayed as everyday real
people. The youth and innocence of Anastasia was captured for the whole world
to see. She was elevated to a somewhat Celebrity status, not unlike the British
monarch today. This film was a means of eliciting pathos in capturing that
innocence once again and making the audience empathise with her.

The Industrial revolution is
another element highlighted in the film. Establishing shots of Russia are
encompassed with signs of industrial power. Factories. Steaming chimneys,
trains etc. There’s a reason that the opening number is sung by the citizens of
Russia. It shows the audience a glimpse into their lives. The opening song A rumour in St Petersburg is a cross
examination of the after effects of the Russian Revolution under communist rule.
It’s essentially a song about the rumours of Anastasia being alive as told by
the people of Russia. This is perhaps the most honest representation throughout
the film of Russia at the time. It shows the state of the people’s access to
media. Every bit of information they had were rumours/ Gossip “oh since the
revolution our lives have been so grey. Thank Goodness for the gossip that gets
us through the day” but these rumours made life that tiny bit less bleak.
Anastasia is a literal manifestation of the hopes of a country. Anastasia with
all her mystery and innocence is an icon of a world that disappeared forever in
the revolution. The Rumour in St Petersburg scene is an important scene that
downplays the cruel after effects of the Russian revolution with an upbeat
tempo song that alludes to a better unattainable future. With subtleties hidden
throughout the scene like communist enforcement soldiers and the urgent
repetition of the mantra “but please do not repeat”. There are messages
throughout this scene that allude to the hardships of the oppressive post-revolutionary
reality that citizens were forced to live in. A reality where gossip and
rumours were cause for arrest; which only serves to further heighten the
overall imperative nature of Anastasia in the story. She exists as a symbol of
hope.

Perhaps the biggest and most
problematic change in the Anastasia animation is the demonization of Rasputin
in order to accommodate the younger audience. Villains are generally what make
or break a film. Alfred Hitchcock once said “The more successful the villain,
the more successful the picture” A good villain can carry a film. However, in
the case of the Russian Revolution the villain of the story was a society, it
was generations of autocracy. In the particular case of the Romanovs, their
undoing was a consequence of continued ignorance. How do you present to children
a social construct as a villain? How do you explain the complex inner working
of political mistakes and wrong doings? They do not. They instead chose to
create a sanitized binary opposition to Anastasia in the form of the magic
wielding villain Rasputin. Between low angle parading shots of the character
and maniacal character aesthetic, he is one of the scariest villains in
animation history.  If Anastasia was the
manifestation of hope in a dismal world, then Rasputin is a manifestation of
the dissolution of the nation. He is a projected personification of the
destruction of the Romanovs. The problem with this is it simplifies reality and
instead of teaching children the truth it frames the Bolshevik rebellion not as
a city of starving farmers overthrowing a feudal system but as a single madman
selling his soul to kill a very loving and kind family. As much as it makes for
a great fantasy, in the context of reality it’s a bastardisation of Rasputin.  They created a villain that essentially is a
constructed lie to elevate the moral justifications of Anastasia. He is a two
dimensional social construct of what an archetypal villain should be. Rasputin
is merely a malleable character to project the failing of a nation on to.

In reality Rasputin was no more
than a man of religion that was a trusted advisor of the Romanovs; who in the
most vulnerable time of Nicholas II reign took advantage of a power vacuum and
enjoyed the flattery of society and women. He was known to visit prostitutes
and drink heavily, a lifestyle unbecoming of an associate of the Romanovs. In
the BBC documentary Empire of the Tsars author
Virginia Rounding suggested that his image was problematic for the Romanovs
“the fact that they were close to him and refused to talk about it (his
reputation) just exasperated relations with the rest of the family and with the
wider aristocracy, calling into question their judgement”. The Romanovs were
tainted by association. Rasputin is a prime example of the consequence of a bad
media presence. He posed a threat to the Romanov image and was assassinated for
it. He was a victim of perception and a casualty of the preservation of the regal
facade. Rasputin’s continued reputation is a relic of the time. Though his
image was something called into question heavily during the rule of Nicholas II
and didn’t help the strained relations between the monarch as well as the
people of Russia, it doesn’t justify the total demonization of his name and
character in Anastasia. He is a character children were TAUGHT to hate. He is a
man children were taught to believe killed the Romanov family under the guise
of a fairy-tale. It is the perception of this film that further tarnishes the
image of a real life figure of history.

Furthermore, this is not the first
time a real figure has been changed in American film; more specifically for the
genre of children’s animation. Disney is the leading power in the world of
animation, creating a world designed to replicate human interaction blurring the
“imminent margins between fiction and reality” (chesebro and Bertleson 1996)
but ultimately all it does is westernise cultural figures, themes and ideals to
fit the so-called ‘code’ of Disney. Disney’s trademark innocence of a
fantastical world of a princess and the ‘magical kingdom’ is operated on the
sanitization and cultural appropriation of political struggles, violence,
sexuality and even religion; systematically ‘cleaning’ up history to fit a
specific image they deem appropriate for children. A prime example being
Pocahontas. Pocahontas is based on the story of a girl called Matoaka, daughter
of an Algonquian Chief. Though unlike her ‘Disney’ ending, reality was far crueller.
In reality, Matoaka was sold and married to an English man in 1614 at the age
of 17 and presented to England as an example of a ‘civilised savage’. She later
died around the young age of 20. This is another figure that over the years has
been romanticized and sanitized for the purpose of selling a ‘happily ever
after’ story to children. This along with Anastasia does more harm than good.
It is essentially playing on the naïve nature of children and selling lies of
their own construction that are marketable for profit. Lies that become more
damaging as those children grow up and discover the truth.

A century down the line and
articles are still being created with the purpose of proving Anastasia is
alive. There are fan pages Dedicated to the continued belief of her survival.
Why can’t society let the Myth die? This is probably a societal manifestation
of a need for closure. For nearly 90 years leading experts had no idea what
happened to the Duchess. People would rather believe lies that she is alive
than face the harsh reality that she died with her family. In the eyes of the
public she is representative of a holy martyr. The Global obsession with
Anastasia is a story type that would repeat itself in the media. In 2007 three-year-old
Madeleine McCann went missing in Portugal and the media went wild but children
go missing all the time. What is it about this one child that continues to
capture the obsession of the world? In the Documentary ‘madeleine McCann: A global obsession’ Micheal Cole public
relations consultant suggests that it is the universality of the situation “it
could happen to any of us” and it’s that reminder of the vulnerability of
children that is a game changer. No matter what situation the vulnerability of
a child is a hard truth to face. The two situations do vary considerably but it
is the fact that a heinous crime has been committed to a CHILD that it
resonates on a global scale. Children are a symbolic representation of
innocence and youth. We protect them because they cannot protect themselves.

In recent months, Anastasia has
been catapulted back into the forefront of media in the form of the Broadway
adaptation of the 1997 film. However, unlike the film the musical has chosen to
take a more realistic approach; getting rid of the Rasputin and magic
influences and leaning toward a more honest villain in his absence. The Villain
is as it should have been along; the communist rule of a post revolution
Russia. Through the eyes of the sympathetic villain Gleb we see through the
eyes of a true patriot of Russia; whose father executed the Romanovs “I heard
the shots. I heard the screams. But it’s the silence that I remember the most.
The world stopped breathing and I was no longer a boy”. This new character
offers a more honest and three-dimensional villain that questions the actions
of the Russian soldiers. It is a more focused dissection of the guilt of the
nation “be careful what a dream may bring, a revolution is a simple thing” this
shows the growing awareness of the media industry. The Broadway show absolves
neither the Romanovs nor the people of Russia of fault, but rather presents those
faults within the paradigm of a Romantic Story. ‘Anastasia’ as a character is
almost inconsequential. Over the course of a century, the story of Anastasia
has been told and retold in many forms but with each adaptation, a new
awareness of the whole picture is realised.

Part of the fascination of the
Duchess Anastasia and the reasoning behind the creation of this film is that
the bodies of two Romanov children were not found in the mass burial site
discovered in 1991. The Russian citizens had no closure as to what really
happened to the family. People were so horrified by the brutality of reality
that they created this other reality wherein Anastasia survived. This delusion
was further supported by the appearance of Anna Anderson; a woman claiming to
be Anastasia. In 1922, claims that Anderson was the lost Duchess first became
public and without the DNA technology we have today, disproving her claims were
difficult. Many investigations were held to deliberate the truth with no
conclusive answers. In July 2007, nearly 90 years after the Romanovs were
killed the last 2 remaining skeletons were found and the mystery was laid to
rest. However, with the results being so late, could Anastasia the animated
film really be a film detailing the delusions of Anna Anderson herself? The
animation was released in 1997, before Anna Anderson’s claims were conclusively
disproved. The film claims to be based on true events, but could those true
events be the inner workings of Anna Anderson’s delusions? This could explain ‘Anastasia’s’
elopement at the end of the film. The character no longer bears the duties that
go with the Romanov name, which mirrors Anna Anderson’s real life migration to
America in 1928.

To conclude the platform of an
animation is a major disservice in the telling of the
story of Anastasia. The film presents a problematic representation of the Bolshevik
rebellion and demise of the Romanovs. It falls into the genre trap of
romanticizing and sanitising a dark path of history in both visual
representation and characterisation, ignoring the core historical elements and
figures for the sake of marketability.